Billy Joe Shaver Has Been an Outlaw From the Git Go

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Billy Joe Shaver, the legendary roughneck Texas poet, is mighty proud of his songwriting, and he’s not afraid to say so. And he’s justified in feeling that way, but he long ago grew accustomed to running up against obstacles when it comes to getting his songs recorded and released.

He’s got epic stories of his dealings with record labels. Like the time he landed a contract by threatening to jump from a balcony railing at the Grand Ole Opry House.

The account of how his new album, Long in the Tooth, was made isn’t quite that dramatic, but it has its rough patches nonetheless.

First, Shaver had to get to where he felt like his writing wouldn’t be tainted with bitterness after weathering the most unpleasant experience of being charged with shooting a man in the face in a 2007 barroom altercation. (He was acquitted three years later.) Then, an initial attempt to record an album with his singer-songwriter friend Todd Snider producing didn’t pan out.

Finally, Shaver turned to tried-and-true roots record men Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson. With them producing, his songs were captured with the sensitivity and verve they deserved.

You’ll find that Shaver has a meandering way of narrating these things. At one point, he paused and asked, “Am I gettin’ too windy here?”

But who’d want to cut off a storyteller like him?

CMT Edge: You’ve often talked about the simplicity of your songwriting, but you really do address some complex subject matter. “Long in the Tooth” has a tough, brash attitude toward the passage of time. “I’ll Love You as Much as I Can,” on the other hand, acknowledges the damage done. Where’d the latter song come from?

Shaver: I married my first wife three times. She passed away from cancer. I was with her the last three years. Then I had a heart attack [while playing a show] at Gruene Hall.

Then a couple of years went by, and in 2001 or something, I met this girl, and she was as crazy as I was. She said, “I just love you” and all that. And she just kept on telling me. She wouldn’t leave me alone. And I told her, “You know, I’ve already been through the mill. I’ll love you as much as I can, now.”

I married her three times. Well, she married me, too, so that don’t make her look all that smart. We became such good friends that it seemed like the divorces kept not working out. We just kept getting back together. …

Gary Nicholson visited me. He used to play guitar for me way back yonder. We had a group called Slim Chance & the Can’t Hardly Playboys. …We were all sitting at the table and [my second wife] was saying, “I’m in love with Billy” and all that stuff. And I said, “Well, I told her I’d love her as much as I can.”

He said, “Billy, man, you oughta write that.” I said, “Well, I’ve already tried. I’ve written at it, you know.” … Then we both got together on it, and it worked out good. I didn’t like to write with other people. But Gary, he’s like family. So it was easy with him.

There’s a lot of tenderness in that song.

Yes, there is. I mean it, you know? If you think about it, that’s about all anybody does is love you as much as they can.

But most people don’t like to acknowledge that.

(laughs) Well, it kinda rubbed her the wrong way when I wrote the song.

You revisited your song “I’m in Love” with a gentle waltz feel. That’s an interesting one. It starts out sounding like it’s about a human lover, then it turns toward love of God.

It’s about being born again, actually. … I really love that song. I’ve had it a long time. What I was doing was, I was singin’ it with three chords. I ain’t much of a guitar player. There’s a whole lot more chords in it. I knew that. Most of the time, though, I sang it a cappella because then I could get all those [notes in].

Gary and Ray both pointed that out to me. When I played it for ‘em, they went nuts. And they said, “Well, why don’t we just do it with the chords right?” And so we did it with the chords right, and it turned out wonderful.

A lot of country singers have traditionally had a gospel part of their shows, but you’ve often put romantic and spiritual love right alongside each other in what you do.

You know, I’ve been that way since I was a kid. I’ve been writin’ since I was about 8. … That kind of stuff seeps into my songs all the time. I don’t mean for it to, but it does. I guess it helps people. I hope it does. It can’t hurt ‘em. But it seems like it seeps in just enough to not be shovin’ it down somebody’s throat.

After I listened to the version of “Music City USA” on your new album, I revisited Bobby Bare’s version from the ‘70s. He did it in first-person, but you did it in third-person.

Well, Bobby was a little egotistical, I think. Just a little bit.

What made you want to revisit that song now?

I just felt like it was coming, you know. It was coming around to that. I feel like my songs will be heard all over the place now — finally. I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see it happen or hear it happen. But I knew it would happen.

When I wrote them, I knew I was writing good stuff. I’m my worst critic. So I was happy with everything, and I knew it would go. I wrote all my songs hoping they’d live forever, actually. And the word does live on. Words are here long after we’re gone.

Your songs have already had multiple lifetimes.

Yeah, they’re so old, they’re new again.

And they’ve been picked up and performed by successive generations of artists.

Carol Channing even did one. She did “Old Chunk of Coal.” … It’s a kick. John Anderson did it so well. It was gonna be my single. I had an album out, and we’d picked the single — “Old Chunk of Coal.” … Rick Blackburn [label head at Columbia Records] called me in his office and said, “That ain’t gonna be your single.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, somebody else did it.” And I got real mad, and I was gonna storm out of there, you know?

And he said, “Wait a minute. Let me play something for you.” He played John Anderson’s version of it, and I said, “Don’t tell him I got mad.” Because it was so good. It just knocked me down, man.

Speaking of other singers getting a first crack at your songs, a couple of the ones on Long in the Tooth are also on Willie Nelson’s new album.

Actually, yesterday Willie called me and said his album went No. 1. That’s a good deal for me, because he did “Hard to Be an Outlaw” before I did it. And “The Git Go” also.

We were shuffling in and out, trying to find time to do ours because we had to kind of brother-in-law it in. When Ray wasn’t working, we’d have time to do this. And when Gary wasn’t working, we’d have time to do that. A lot of pre-production went into it — and it helped because then we were able to march in there and just do it.

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